Babylon: Nebuchadnezzar’s city


The city of Babylon (“Gate of God”) once stood on the banks of the Euphrates River, 56 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq. It was the capital of Babylonia in the second and first millennia b.c. In a.d. 1897 the German archeologist Robert Koldewey commenced a major excavation. During the next twenty years he unearthed, among many other structures, a processional avenue to the temple of Marduk and the legendary fortified city wall, which once enjoyed a place among the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was not until the sixth century a.d. that its place was usurped by the so-called Hanging Gardens.

Babylon entered the pages of history as the site of a temple around 2200 b.c. At first it was subject to Ur, an adjacent city-state, but gained its independence in 1894 b.c., when the Sumu-abum established the dynasty that reached its zenith under Hammurabi, known as “the Lawgiver.” The Hittites overran the city 330 years later. It was governed by the Kassite dynasty, which extended its borders and made it the capital of the country of Babylonia, with southern Mesopotamia under its control. When the Kassites yielded to pressure from the Elamites in 1155 b.c., Babylon was governed by a succession of ephemeral dynasties and became part of the Assyrian Empire in the late eighth century b.c. In turn, the Assyrians were driven out by Nabopolassar, who founded the Neo-Babylonian dynasty around 615 b.c. His son Nebuchadnezzar II (ca. 604–561 b.c.) built the kingdom into an empire that covered most of southwest Asia.

Babylon, now Nebuchadnezzar’s imperial capital, underwent a huge rebuilding program—new temples and palace buildings, defensive walls and gates, and a splendid processional way—to make it the largest city in the known world, covering some 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares). It must have impressed visitors, because the myth sprang up, perhaps from the assertion of the Greek historian Herodotus, that it was 200 square miles (510 square kilometers) in area, with 330-foot-high (99-meter) walls, 80 feet (25 meters) thick. Of his achievement, Nebuchadnezzar boasted, “Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of my kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?”

The Euphrates River divided the city into two unequal sectors. The “old” quarter, including most of the palaces and temples, stood on the east bank; Nebuchadnezzar’s new city was on the west. The whole was surrounded by an 11-mile-long (17-kilometer) outer wall enclosing suburbs and the king’s summer palace. The inner wall, penetrated by eight fortified gates leading to the outlying regions of Babylonia, was wide enough to allow two chariots to be driven abreast on its top. Most prominent among